I began work as an indie researcher in 1999. Over the next seven years I completed dozens of research contracts, an MSc, and a PhD. I also built up a good professional network, mostly in the English Midlands where I live. The people in my network ran local government departments and charities. They liked me and I liked them: we would meet for coffee, or lunch, and talk shop. After I was awarded my PhD in 2006, I rarely had to apply for work; mostly I was simply offered small contracts that I could complete alone, or slightly larger ones where I might sub-contract some of the work to a colleague. And on the rare occasions when I did write a tender for a local organisation, sometimes I was the only applicant, or the commissioner would have two or three to choose from.
Then in 2010 we had a change of government, the cuts began, and my network imploded. Every single person either took redundancy, or early retirement, or accepted a demotion to a non-managerial post. I was left as high and dry as a spine on a cactus in the desert. Lots of people who had lost or given up their jobs declared themselves to be available for independent work, while a number of my peers who had been indie researchers for some time found, like me, that the work dried up. At one point I did a tender for one piece of work, for an existing client, a national organisation, and I didn’t win. When I asked for feedback, I learned that they had had 26 applications. That is nothing compared to some of the employment recruitment numbers I’ve heard of in the last few years, but it’s a lot more than the half-dozen tenders they might have received in the noughties.
The silver lining was that I had time, which I used to write my first book and to start building new networks. In particular, I began to network with academics, and to network more actively online. In 2011 I applied to the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham for an Associate Research Fellowship, and in 2012 they took me on. Twitter is an environment I enjoy and it’s a great place to network with academics, worldwide, who also enjoy the exchanges there. I also like offering help with research methods to people who are struggling; it’s amazing how much pertinent advice you can fit into 140 characters (or 280, or 420, or…!) And I also kept my personal friends informed about my work – at least, until they started to glaze over – because, well, you never know.
Remember those three gigs I landed in one day, two weeks ago? They all came through networking, even the one where we wrote a tender. For that one, I was recommended to the lead organisation by my mentor at the Third Sector Research Centre. The gig in Calgary came through a woman I met online, a fellow fiction writer. I met her in real life once, in England, shortly before she emigrated to Canada. We’ve kept in touch via Facebook, and at times I’ve been able to give her advice and support with her postgraduate studies. She wrote a very kind review of my first research methods book, and has been delightfully encouraging about my second. But I was gobsmacked when she announced that she wanted to pay me to go and do some work with her in Calgary.
And the Swansea gig came through an even more modern route. A woman in Canada, who I have only ever spoken to on Twitter, recommended me to an American woman in Swansea, who had never heard of me nor I of her. But she evidently trusted the woman in Canada, because she emailed an enquiry, then we spoke on the phone, and I taught a very enjoyable session there last week, helping her postgraduate students to formulate their research questions.
So, if you want to be an indie researcher, you need to be comfortable with networking, both in person and online. And you need to carry on doing it even when you don’t know where it may lead. I had no idea, when I started building new networks in 2010, that they would lead to Swansea or Calgary. And I have no idea where else they may lead. But that’s the indie researcher’s life: exciting, unpredictable, and forever uncertain.